Everybody is familiar with the caricature of the fundamentalist preacher or rigid authoritarian priest who, possessing special knowledge his tribe trembles at, pops off about things he doesn’t understand.
He turns up in popular entertainment all the time, denouncing people as witches for building some gadget (a popular theme in time-travel stories), confidently murdering Copernicus (if you are a Dan Brown sucker) or thumping a Bible and howling about fake moon landings. The Ignorant Religious Popinjay so beloved by the manufacturers of our pop-culture dramas and comedies about Science vs. Religion is always treated like The Authority on Everything by gullible doofuses who follow him because they think that his mastery of the one class of information they value makes him a master of all classes of information they know nothing about.
That’s the agitprop continually pounded into our heads by modernity: The Middle Ages (we are told) was that time when those who were masters of mystic hoodoo about the faith were likewise anointed masters of science and enabled to hold back progress for centuries with their ignorant anti-science prattle until our Age of Reason dawned. It’s a beloved and venerable lie, rebutted again and again by real historians of science such as the late Father Stanley Jaki. But it remains a lie believed by millions at this hour.
The irony, of course, is that if any age should be called the Age of Unreason, it’s ours. It proceeds precisely by taking people who know a lot about one thing and anointing them masters of everything. It is further complicated by the fact that many of our contemporaries worship their intellects rather than use them. They “know” what they “know” because they uncritically regurgitate something some “expert” on television said was “the assured results of science.”
Case in point: the adulation and respect still being accorded the increasingly weird and ignorant remarks of physicist Stephen Hawking. Here he is, delivering the verdict from Mount Sinai that God did not create the universe:
“Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist.”
Classic. There is a law of gravity. It’s just there. Therefore this is no legislator. Like he knows. He is a guy in a lab coat — a technician who knows a great deal about how the lights in the metaphysics classroom work. That doesn’t qualify him to tromp into the metaphysics class and bawl, “I don’t see the point of this junk.” And yet, that’s just what he’s doing, to the awed applause of suckers who, while denouncing the Old Man in Rome as an authoritarian ignoramus, will simultaneously declare, “Hawking said it. I believe it. That settles it.”
The amazing thing is that Hawking seems to be entirely innocent of elementary philosophy here. St. Thomas points out that there are only two decent arguments against the existence of God. The most popular is the Problem of Evil. The other is the one Hawking is trotting out here as new: that things seem to work fine without God. The fallacy is simple: Why are there any things at all? Appealing to some self-existent “law of gravity” suggests that a rather important step in reason has been ignored, such as, oh, why is there a law of gravity in the first place?
Hawking, of course, is free to make metaphysical boners like this all he wants. Similarly, my plumber is free to hold forth on his theories about how the Earth is hollow. But I see no reason in the world to think why either of them should be regarded as having any competence outside their narrow fields.
Mark Shea is content editor of